Powerful Philippine church, military change leaders amid row over Arroyo

By Manuel Mogato, Reuters

MANILA — The Philippine Catholic Church and military, the two most powerful institutions in the country that have helped topple two previous leaders, installed new heads on Monday as acrimony over investigations into another former president intensified. The church and the armed forces are the two most influential bodies in a fervently religious country and played important roles in the 1986 overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the 2001 ouster of President Joseph Estrada. The church named Antonio Tagle, a charismatic and media-savvy 54-year-old priest, as Manila’s new archbishop in a sign it was stepping up the defense of its faith. On the same day, President Benigno Aquino, whose government is testing the church’s power by proposing to liberalize laws on contraception and divorce, installed a longtime family ally as head of the 130,000-member military.

Aquino is locked in a battle with the country’s top judge, whom he accuses of hindering his anti-corruption drive, over efforts to investigate his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Jesuit-educated Tagle became only the fifth Filipino head of the Archdiocese of Manila in its more than 400-year history, replacing the retired Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.

Joselito Zulueta, an analyst on church affairs, said Tagle would be a potent weapon against government plans to legalize divorce and improve access to contraception through his close links with the Catholic middle-class and civil society groups. Tagle is expected to be at the forefront of efforts to keep the Philippines — the only state in the world without a divorce law — as one of the strongest bastions of Catholicism. The church there equates contraception with abortion.

Zulueta said Tagle may also emulate the political role of revered former Cardinal Jaime Sin. “Tagle will be political like Sin in the sense that he will continue to make the church’s voice heard on political issues. Historically, the church in the Philippines is activist and interventionist,” Zulueta told Reuters.